Savoring San Diego: An Epicurean Adventure
I recently found myself with a few unscheduled days alone in San Diego, a city about which I knew nothing and no one. When planning a trip to a city, I often start by looking for the best local restaurants, which is how I stumbled upon culinary guide Stephanie Parker and her business, Epicurean San Diego. What luck!
San Diego foodies gather at Dickinson Farm in National City to celebrate the local sustainable food movement. This event was organized in part by my tour guide, Stephanie Parker of Epicurean San Diego. Photo by Sara Moore.
Stephanie has worked in the food industry in San Diego, as well as in San Francisco, for many years, and she founded her culinary tour business to show tourists and locals alike what San Diego can offer foodies, beer lovers and wine aficionados. A truly gracious host, she helped me discover hidden gems that I never would’ve found on my own.
My conclusions from a day spent savoring San Diego? To truly discover a place, take a culinary tour. I tasted a little of this great American city between the ocean and desert, and left fulfilled.
5 Culinary Spots in San Diego
Here are the spots I visited on my Epicurean San Diego tour. If you’re planning a trip to San Diego, be sure to stop in, or better yet, give Stephanie a call — she’ll set up a custom tour that matches the tastes and interests of your crew. She also has access to some locations that aren’t generally open to the public.
1. Bird Rock Coffee Roasters
At their Morena Boulevard Roastery, one of three locations in the San Diego area, guests can get a cup and also see the operation behind the award-winning coffee. Photo by Nicholas Berardi.
This roaster takes coffee to another level, urging customers to think of coffee as they would seasonal produce — as in, there’s a time for everything, but that time isn’t year-round. Bird Rock sources from all over the world but only buys during prime harvest times and sells coffee that is truly fresh. This dedication comes from the founder, Chuck Patton, who started as a home roaster and gradually turned his passion into Bird Rock in 2006, then soon won Roast Magazine’s 2012 Micro Coffee Roaster of the Year.
My visit with Epicurean San Diego focused on a cupping demonstration and tasting, in which I learned to truly taste coffee, detect flavors and tones, and compare one bean from another. If you’re not on a tour and just stopping in, be sure to ask questions of the super-knowledgeable staff. They can recommend a cup based on your personal tastes and point you to the correct in-season bean for your preferred home brewing method.
2. Catalina Offshore Products
Tommy Gomes is the Trusted Fishmonger at Catalina. Photo by Chuck Pegot.
Not known to many tourists but loved by locals, this fish market is a nod to San Diego’s former claim to fame as the Tuna Capital of the World. While they do source the freshest tuna and sell it to chefs all over town as well as to the public, Catalina’s offering is more varied than just tuna — from local lobster to sea urchin, the specialty that got owner and diver Dave Rudie into this seafood business many moons ago.
At Catalina, Stephanie and I saw huge tuna, fresh off the boat, being cut and divided into different quality cuts. Most products at the market are sourced from southern California or Baja waters by fishermen who are in tune with Catalina’s commitment to sustainability and quality. If you’re a local, get ye to the fish market. If you’re just visiting but have a love for seafood, stop in to see what treasure Catalina has on deck — they can also direct you to local restaurants where their freshest seafood is on the menu.
3. The Red Door Restaurant and Bar
An inviting labor of love, Red Door's beautiful, simple interior reflects the fresh menu defined by local, seasonal ingredients.
At Red Door, we stopped in for a lunch with owner Trish Watlington, a farmer and restauranteur with a deep passion for local, healthy food. It was a special treat for me to sit with Trish, learn her story and pick her brain about food systems and opportunities and barriers to sourcing local, all while eating from a menu on which each ingredient's source is revealed. On the day of my visit, locally-sourced ingredients included persimmons and arugula from Trish’s own backyard garden (as well as fish from Catalina). In addition to the restaurant, an adjoining bar serves what Trish calls “garden to glass” cocktails.
Unique among restaurants in San Diego and across the country, Red Door has taken a holistic approach following a new trend of community-supported restaurants (CSR). Like community supported agriculture (CSA), in which customers buy a share in a farm, CSRs allow members to buy into the business with an annual membership that includes perks like special dinners, deals on wine, preview tastings, and farm tours. Trish likes the CSR idea because it helps develop the San Diego local food scene while giving her a way to expand Red Door with an insured level of financial and community support.
4. Dickinson Farm
Tucked behind her historic home in National City, one of the oldest areas in San Diego, Stepheni Norton's farm is growing seeds of health and hope in a food desert. Photo by Sarah Wilson.
In National City, one of the oldest and most diverse areas of San Diego, military veteran Stepheni Norton has put down roots, tending a small organic farm in the backyard of her historic homestead. On our tour of her labor of love, Dickinson Farm, we walked among the beautiful rows of lettuce, radishes and other fall crops and the raised beds filled with the last tomatoes, basil and peppers of summer.
We also learned about how a long battle with Lyme disease led Stepheni to gardening and healthy food, and how that experience elucidated the problem of living in a food desert. Today, Stepheni sells her organic produce at a nearby farmstand, offering some of the only fresh produce for miles around. It’s her mission to change the nature of eating in National City and improve the community's health, as well as her own. Thankfully, she has some like-minded neighbors next door at Olivewood Gardens & Learning Center, a teaching space where local kids and families learn about everything from growing veggies to making healthy meals at home. (To bring it back full circle, Trish of Red Door is on the board at Olivewood.)
5. Nibble Chocolate
At Nibble Chocolate, bars are prepared the old-fashioned way — by hand, with only the purest ingredients sourced from sustainable farms across the globe.
The last stop on my tour is a chocolate-lover’s dream. Similar to Bird Rock, Nibble Chocolate, in the heart of San Diego’s historic Old Town, focuses on sustainable sourcing across the global, but the bean of choice is cocoa. Owner Sandra Bedoya talks about cocoa beans like fine wines, and our taste test proves there are just as many distinctions. The real difference between a Nibble bar and other bars is that it’s made direct from the beans, which are ground to a paste in the traditional manner, rather than from cocoa powder. The four primary Nibble cocoa sources are small farms in Brazil, the Dominican Republic, Madagascar and Peru, and each has its own unique flavor. All of Nibble’s chocolate bars are dark chocolate (only organic cane sugar is added), making them vegan as well.
In addition to a large case full of tempting treats, the Nibble Chocolate shop also includes educational demonstrations that show how the cocoa is sourced and the chocolate is made, as Sandra says, “the old way.” I walked out with a four-bar sampler pack so I can taste test at home with friends and share the news that not all chocolates are made the same.